That dapper fellow you see directing things at Slave Lake’s Hotel Northern Star these days is a man with an illustrious past in the hospitality industry. His name is Ashish (but call him ‘Ash’) Arora. He’s just in from London England. Or New York. Or New Delhi. Take your pick.
Of course the obvious question is – ‘What is he doing in Slave Lake Alberta?’
That’s exactly what we asked him. The story is almost unbelievable in its twists; its turns, the shocking and tragic along with the miraculous. We’re going to present a short version of it here, hitting some of the highlights; or lowlights, as the case may be.
But first…. Let’s give a plug to the Northern Star’s new East Indian cuisine it has begun promoting since Arora’s arrival earlier this year. It’s an attempt to distinguish itself from other restaurants in town and “give you the real taste of India,” Arora says.
The past couple of weeks he was inviting various people from town in to sample the new offerings – such dishes as aloo gobi, palak paneer, chicken biryani, black chana (a chickpea curry), and gulab jamun for dessert. Then last Friday evening was the big launch event, which your reporter was invited to but missed.
Arora says the two cooks “know how to make this stuff,” but hadn’t been doing it, much. For one thing, the hotel was still figuring out its brand a year or two after re-opening under new ownership. Arora came in like a whirlwind, with a huge fund of experience. Seeing that his cooks needed a bit of freshening up, he got them on a conference call with “a top chef in India” he happens to know. And away they went. You can sample the results at the Northern Star anytime you like.
So who is Ashish Arora, that he can call up one of India’s top chefs and ask him to chat with two guys in a kitchen in the wilds of western Canada? And again, why here? Let’s find out.
Born in Amritsar in the Punjab province of India, Ashish lost his mother when he was two. His father, a military man, sent him first to live with his grandparents, then to a Catholic boarding school in New Zealand. He spent six years there, returning to India at age 10 to enter the prestigious (I.e. very hard to get into) Doon School in Dehradun, in the Himalayan foothills. He excelled, he says; while there – among other accomplishments – he was a national champion in polo and swimming. Upon graduation, he entered the hospitality management program at West London University in the U.K. He says he graduated after four years at the top of his class, “the only one with honours.” His father – by then a high-ranking officer in the Indian Army – attended.
“He hugged me,” Ash remembers. “It was the first time in my life.”
By then he was already working for the Four Seasons group, as a management trainee. After a couple of years there he took a job with Holiday Inn, at Farnborough, next door to a military airbase. One of its frequent customers was a certain Tony Blair, the British PM.
“I was his butler on his flight,” Arora says. Blair apparently appreciated Arora’s style, because he requested him again and again.
Next in the Arora career progression was a job with Grange Hotels in London as front desk manager; that quickly morphed into a position in sales and marketing for the group. They sponsored his ambition to achieve a master’s degree in business administration, which he took by way of night school courses at Fulham and Chelsea College.
But the writing was on the wall as far as continued residence in the U.K. was concerned. An incident in late 2001 coloured Arora’s view of what life could hold for him in that country. It led to his eventually leaving in 2005 and returning to India. He liked his job and his bosses were very good to him, he says, but an attack by racist thugs on a street in London changed everything. Walking home after a night out with friends, he says the group was ambushed, bags put over their heads and beaten badly.
“I woke up in the hospital,” he says. “Four (of the other victims) didn’t survive.”
This was in the crazy, overheated atmosphere in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City. It shook him deeply and “I made up my mind I would leave the country.”
Moving to New Delhi in 2005 “was a culture shock for me,” Arora says. For one thing, he was weak on Indian languages, having been schooled in English alone. He had quite a bit of brushing up to do in that regard, and simply adjusting to life as a working adult in his home country.
“I had a huge Cockney accent,” he says. “I didn’t know how to control it.”
He had taken a substantial pay cut as well, but two years later, he was working for the International Hotel Group, with a team of 18 under him, traveling 250 days a year, working long hours and making good money. The lifestyle almost killed him.
“I collapsed in 2014. I had six tumors in my stomach.”
The cancer was well advanced. Hospitals in India were unable or unwilling to treat it. One doctor spoke to colleagues in the U.S., but at first there was no interest there either.
“My liver was absolutely damaged,” he says. “No chance of saving me (they thought).”
But eventually he was taken in by the famous Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York City. The treatment was aggressive, and it nearly did him in. After his first chemo treatment, “I was almost dead,” he says. “A six-year-old girl and a 90-year-old woman held my hands and said, ‘If we can take it, you can.’”
He did take it, but there was no saving his liver. He needed a new one, but there were no family members to donate it. Chances of finding a suitable donor were somewhere between slim and none.
“Finally I got a Mexican taxi driver, whose liver, bone marrow – everything – matched.”
That was in March of 2017. Eight months later – and $2.5 million dollars poorer – Arora was discharged. He credits the doctors, the psychologists and two friends who called him regularly for his survival and recovery.
“I will never be able to repay them (the friends, for their emotional support) in their lives,” he says. “A cancer patient needs emotional support.”
So…having dodged death like that, what to do with the rest of his life? He decided to take his PhD, but had to drop it for lack of money. He needed to work, but where? The air quality in Delhi made that place an unacceptable choice.
“Delhi is a gas chamber,” he says, bluntly.
So he applied to come to Canada, which tends to welcome people with the kind of credentials Arora possesses. Why Canada?
“I wanted to be close to New York, so I can go back there for check-ups. And the clean air.”
He started in Vancouver, then went to Edmonton hoping to find a job. This was in December of last year. No sooner did he arrive than an offer came from a small hotel in Vancouver. He had only been working there 20 days when another offer came, from a bigger hotel in a small town he’d never heard of – Slave Lake, Alberta.
“Pack your bags,” they told him, after checking out his credentials and references.
And here he is.
“This is a nice hotel,” Arora says, having been on the job just 16 days at the time of the interview. There are lots of wrinkles to iron out, as they say, but certainly nothing he hasn’t encountered before. Besides working with the staff to get the customer service up to where he would like it to be, he says he’s interested in getting to know the community and the broader market for the type of services the hotel provides, and making connections.
“I have freedom to do what I want,” Arora says. “I can change a lot of things.”